Anne Hardie

A calm, stress-free environment from day one where animals are treated with respect produces a quiet cow that will happily deliver throughout her life and Anthony Lamborn says there are no excuses for anything less.

Lamborn manages a 700-cow herd at 650-metre altitude near Nelson’s Lake Rotoiti and is passionate about the animals in his care and that earned him the DeLaval Livestock Management Award in the West Coast Top of the South Dairy Manager of the Year award where he placed third overall.

Animal welfare and health are paramount on the farm and his goal is always to produce relaxed, happy cows that have never had any checks as a youngster, are grown out well and achieve longevity in the herd.

It’s a challenging farm to achieve that goal with snow on the ground each year during calving and the cold delaying the balance date for grass as late as mid October and sometimes later. In his first year on the farm, 10cm of snow fell in one storm and hung around for two weeks.

“And the frosts are mean. It gets bitterly cold and the roads are treacherous. We don’t grow a hell of a lot of grass from the first frosts in mid-April and they’re still hanging around in September.  So we juggle supplements to make up for it.”

The former sheep and beef farm was converted to dairy six years ago and sprawls over 660 hectares, though much of that is in native bush and the milking platform covers 250ha. Steeper paddocks beyond the platform reach 750m where some of the cows graze through winter while the rest of the herd grazes nearby on leased land.

‘I’m never in a rush to kick them outside or to wean them. It can’t just be done on age because it will be doomed to fail. Before weaning them, they have to be eating a reasonable amount of grass and meal or they will check and go backwards.’

The setting is spectacular, but calving can be downright unpleasant and as there is only one house on the farm, Anthony takes the night time shift to check calving cows. He uses strips of old car tubes to make collars for the newborn calves with a number assigned to the mother and drafts the calved cows from the springer herd the next day.

Because the dairy has automatic drafting, Anthony brings the entire springer herd in every morning where they get a feed of calving pellets and a teat spray before the calved cows are drafted out, while the non-calved cows head to the feed pad for maize before heading back to the paddock. The system has worked well for the farm which usually has three full-time staff alongside Anthony through the season, though for much of the past season it was just two staff.

“Because my staffing structure is small, I had to look at how to do things efficiently and this way just two of us can get the job done and my guys get regular days off over calving. So no-one is tired and irritable.”

If newborn calves brought into the calf shed are still wet, they get towelled dry and if necessary, tube fed if they’ve struggled to get going in stormy weather. Everything has its navel sprayed with iodine and goes into the care of Anthony’s wife, Rachel, who refuses to let anyone enter the calf sheds without walking through a disinfectant footbath.

“A lot of disease among calves is from overcrowding and poor hygiene, so stock buyers and bobby truck guys aren’t allowed in the sheds. We always make sure someone is there to help get calves on the truck.”
When the farm was converted to dairy, a separate shed was built for bobby calves and a concrete pit constructed so trucks can back down into it to make the deck level with the ground, allowing calves to be walked onto the truck without a ramp. Last season there were fewer bobby calves walking on to the truck as all the bull calves that were black, or black and white, were sold to a buyer to raise for bull beef and that earned the farm an extra $12,000.

Inside the replacement heifer calf shed, calves are stocked at 16 calves per large pen with plenty of space for the calves and sunshine pouring in to promote healthy growth. All the farm’s colostrum is kept, stored and fed to the calves, so no milk powder is bought in. For six weeks, the heifer calves are fed twice a day and kept inside the shed, with fresh water, top-quality meadow hay and meal from day one.

“The hay is for the scratch factor to get them ruminating. The newbies don’t eat it but as soon as they go into their assigned mobs they’ll eat the hay rather than the meal.”

At six weeks they head out on to grass and milk drops to one feed a day, fed to paddocks of 40 calves and a calf feeder with 55 teats so there’s enough room to spread around and avoid competition for milk. Calves that are slower feeders are held back in the shed and only head out to the paddocks when they can keep up with the other calves.

“They’re slower-drinking calves rather than later calves – some just take a little longer and I’m never in a rush to kick them outside or to wean them. It can’t just be done on age because it will be doomed to fail. Before weaning them, they have to be eating a reasonable amount of grass and meal or they will check and go backwards.”

Anthony with one of his favourite heifers.

To avoid other checks in growth, the herd is vaccinated with Rotovac to avoid rotavirus, the calf sheds are cleaned with chloride of lime before the season to “nuke any bugs”, walls and rails are sprayed with Virkon disinfectant cleaner, and once calving begins the milk feeders are cleaned every morning and night with hot acid water from the dairy plant wash.

‘They’re little defenceless animals that really need to be loved and looked after to do well. You make a living off them and your future herd starts as a calf.’

Removing stress at debudding is also a priority to reduce the risk of growth checks. Debudding is a brutal experience that Anthony says is stressful for both animals and staff. Paying a vet to do the job painlessly and professionally is a no-brainer as far as he is concerned. It’s carried out over a couple of vet visits where the calves follow the milk feeder into the shed and as they are trying to feed, the vet gives them a jab to put them to sleep, gives them a local anaesthetic and removes the horn buds and any extra teats. It costs $5 a calf and Anthony says it is money well spent and should be regulation.

“The calves don’t check at all. The calves don’t have a clue what’s going on and when they wake up they have a feed. The next day they’re a bunch of happy calves and aren’t bleeding and shaking their heads because their heads are sore. We’ve had no bleeding, no infection – nothing. It’s money well spent and I believe it should be enforced in the industry.”

Getting vets to debud calves – and down the track polled genes maybe – is part of an animal welfare policy that Anthony says the industry should be heading toward voluntarily. Likewise, teaching staff from the beginning how to treat animals from the time they are young calves.

“It’s just having protocols in place on farms of how animals can be handled. I think I was fortunate to be born on a dairy farm and dad was a first-class stockman, while mum was the calf-rearer and she treated all the calves like babies – and my wife Rachel does too. They’re little defenceless animals that really need to be loved and looked after to do well. You make a living off them and your future herd starts as a calf. Our stock just love people because it’s how they’ve been brought up.”

As the calves mature, the philosophy remains the same to give them a stress-free and well-fed existence so they continue to grow without checks and are relaxed with people.

The herd is a liquorice allsorts of breeds as it was made up of carry-over cows two years ago, so calves include all the artificially-inseminated heifers plus the pick of those from natural matings to improve the herd faster. Such a diverse mix of genes means calves are weaned accordingly, with Friesian types finishing their milk feeds at 100kg, crossbreds at 85kg and Jerseys have to reach 75kg.

At weaning, the calves get an oral drench, plus B12 and selenium which they will get every three months until they are a year old. From weaning they are run as one mob and rotated around paddocks to get the pick of grass. The mob doesn’t go behind wire until they are eight months old and as yearlings after winter, they still get the best of the grass without being behind wire.

The dairy is a food production facility that is cleaned accordingly.

Treat them like ladies, not slappers

Animal welfare is an issue close to Anthony Lamborn’s heart and he says the dairy industry could be more proactive, including random farm audits and lifting the Code of Welfare minimal condition score.

A cow with the minimum condition score of three is emaciated, he says, and though there are always certain circumstances when one or two cows are like that, there are entire herds that are that low.

“Years ago people used to have a ‘what if’ silage stack on their farm for a drought or hard winter, but you don’t see much of that any more. I think any farm should have enough feed on hand for four to five weeks if needed.”

The herd he manages tends towards fat and that’s the way he likes it and it takes a bit of feeding to achieve it. A cost that he says is returned with milk in the vat and healthy, happy cows.

“Every cow in my herd is a lady and they are to be treated like ladies. If you treat them like slappers you will get a herd of slappers. Treat them like ladies and you get a herd of ladies. I treat them with respect because they put in a huge amount of work and they pay my wage.

“Animal welfare starts with your staff and you have to start with stockmanship. There are protocols in my dairy shed and no-one steps outside of that.”

Tired, worn-out staff can take it out on cows so Anthony says the goal is to keep staff fresh and happy. The farm has the advantage of plenty of automation in the dairy which allows the herd of 700 cows to be milked by just one person. That allows staff to get a couple of late starts in a row. Plus they get a good two-hour break over lunch and the cows benefit.

Animal welfare and nutrition go hand-in-hand because it’s all about feeding the cows well, he says. On a farm at 650m above sea level with little or no grass growth between April and October and the longest walk stretching out to 1.45 hours, the reality is supplementary feed to keep the weight on and producing milk through the season.

‘In Switzerland the Swiss Brown are on terrain that makes them suitable for here and they have longevity. They’ve a fantastic option for crossbreeding because they come from a harsh environment and can handle anything thrown at them.’

Anthony chooses biscuit meal, which is a bakery waste with 14MJ ME and because it is a cooked product, it is totally utilisable by the cow and nothing is wasted. He feeds 3kg/cow from calving through to drying them off at the end of May. During spring he also feeds up to 6kg/cow of palm kernel and in autumn about 2kgs, when he gives the cows 6kgs of maize silage each to put weight on before winter.

“Then we don’t have to put weight on through winter because we don’t put weight on in winter here.”

He’s thrown in a bit of tapioca as well, barley and wheat, all with the goal of being energy replacers and though it costs, he says a fully fed cow has reduced animal health and fertility costs. Overall, the herd costs work out at $45/cow/year and that includes breeding costs.

The result of all the feed is the ability to milk the herd twice a day throughout the season until the last few days of May and total production is about 300,000kg milksolids (MS) from 680 cows at the peak.

“Pasture is king, but if you choose to run a system with supplementation, you have to get the balance right.”

By that he means feeding the cows according to the feed’s neutral detergent fibre that determines physical fill, rather than simply replacing a kilogram of grass with a kilogram of supplement.

He rates stocking rate as an animal welfare issue and overstocking is “doing the cows an injustice” because they need to be full all the time.

In the high-altitude climate near Lake Rotoiti, the farm runs about 2.8 cows/ha and has to have enough feed on hand to last through the 100-day winter and then enough to get through summer. For pasture management he has carry-over cows and the few paddocks that can be mown are made into silage when there’s surplus.

The herd of carry-over cows still has a long way to go with breeding to achieve suitable cows for the high-altitude farm and Anthony is steering clear of Friesian genetics which he says don’t cope well and he isn’t a fan of Kiwicross either.

“Kiwicross has created so many issues for New Zealand – I love crossbred cows, but crossbred cows I’ve created myself. Kiwicross has no hybrid vigour which you need on this property. Anywhere there is contour or walking distances, your crossbred is the only way to go. BW (breeding worth) and PW (production worth) mean nothing here – they’re just figures on paper.”

He buys Jersey semen for Friesian-type cows and vice versa, though this year he is throwing in a few different genes including Brown Swiss and Ayrshire. The Brown Swiss bull has 4.1% fat and 4.06% protein which will go over the Jersey cows to balance the fat/protein ratio and put more width and strength into the front end of the cows for heart and lungs.

“In Switzerland the Swiss Brown are on terrain that makes them suitable for here and they have longevity. They’ve a fantastic option for crossbreeding because they come from a harsh environment and can handle anything thrown at them. Ayrshires have foraging ability and you can have horrible weather and they’re still out grazing. On paper, their BW means you wouldn’t contemplate using them. But you have to pick the right cow for each bull – pick on type.”

Otherwise cows won’t last the distance and he says lost longevity costs farmers money because cows are too often being culled at four to five years old.

He’d like to eventually have his own farm where he can concentrate on his passion for genetics and nutrition, but doesn’t see that happening in NZ where farm prices are prohibitive. Instead, with an American father making citizenship easier, he’s likely to eventually head to Texas or Missouri where farm ownership could become a reality.